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Florida Public Universities Rank #1 in the Nation for 3rd Straight Year

May 14th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

For the third year in a row, US News and World Report has named Florida’s public universities number one in the country.

Governor Ron DeSantis called that good news.

The Governor spent Monday in New York pitching Florida to new businesses.

He said they understand the state’s great weather and low tax structure, but added it’s the people that make the state number one.

“At the end of the day, that’s important. It has drawn investment and will continue to draw investment, but I think probably the most important thing is human capital. And so we’ve let people know we take pride in being number one. We want to continue to improve and raise the bar,” said DeSantis.

Factors that went into the ranking included cost, the time to graduate, and the debt required to graduate.

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DOC Whistle Blower Facing Retaliation?

May 13th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Reports of abuse and poor conditions in Florida prisons are being aired by former and current correctional officers. One whistle blower who first shared his story with us more than four years ago, is fighting his termination which his lawyer says is retaliation.

In November 2014, We interviewed Correctional officer Tim Butler, but we didn’t tell you his name or show his face.

“I feel my life is in more danger than its ever been.”

No longer incognito, Butler says he was called on the carpet almost immediately.

“They always said they knew it was me because of my boots, the way I walked. I said, the way I walked?”

What followed according to his lawyer Ryan Andrews, was a year of intimidation.

“For violating his first amendment rights, they paid him a ninety nine thousand dollar settlement and they’ve been gunning for him ever since. He’s a preacher.”

Andrews continues: “You would think the department would be happy when he reports wrong doing or abuse of power, misuse of position and inmate beating and sneaking in contraband. You would think he would be rewarded for that, but instead, when he reported it, they terminated him a couple months later.”

Now, Butler has been given his termination paperwork. Accused of being late and using unwarranted force. He calls the charges trumped up.

“You know, I’ve tried to tell them about the food. I tried to tell them about the drugs and stuff we have come in” says Butler.

And says the firing came after he complained about drugs, drones and increasingly dangerous working conditions.

“And I kept on asking them, I said I need some help in the chow hall. Need some more males in the chow hall. They refused to say that, they refused to even do that.”

He also complained about how inmates are being treated.

“The snitch got killed. They failed to protect him.”

“Butler isn’t alone, This published report shows that a dozen current or former employees, all from one prison in Santa Rosa County, have filed for whistle blower protection.”. 

Butler is fighting to get his job back. Not so he can go back to work, but so he can resign with his integrity intact. 

Prisons remain chronically under staffed. A parade of wardens told lawmakers this year they feared losing control of their institutions, had no money to repair facilities, and couldn’t hire enough officers, forcing those still working to work long hours. 

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Financial Regulator Suspended with Pay

May 13th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Ronald Rubin, the state’s top financial regulator has been suspended with pay. Shown here from his February 26th job interview with the Governor and Cabinet, Rubin is the subject of a sexual harassment complaint made public late Friday afternoon. In it, Rubin is alleged to have taken a female employee to his nearby condo on their way to and from lunch, making the employee feel like she later had to hide from him. He also invited her to a conference in Washington D.C. The unnamed woman sought a different position within the agency. 

 

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Governor Welcomes 54 New FHP Troopers

May 10th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

More than four dozen new State Troopers got their badges Friday morning witnessed by Governor Ron DeSantis.

The cadets have been training since last October.

Sounding off, 54 cadets marched into the ceremony for the 141st Florida Highway Patrol graduating class.

“Obviously we’re looking for the best, who have the best background, who really are going to support the mission of courtesy, service and protection,” said FHP Chief of Public Affairs Captain Thomas Pikul.

Six months of intense training, learning to shoot, drive defensively, and much more led them to this moment.

A point not taken lightly by Governor Ron DeSantis.

“You very well may be called into action after a Hurricane or after some type of emergency situation and I think that after the training that you’ve gone through, after proving your medal, I think you’re going to be ready to discharge those responsibilities,” said DeSantis.

The new troopers will serve all through the state, from Pensacola to the Florida Keys.

We spoke with two new troopers, both headed to serve in Miami.

“I know we’ll be prepared when we go out there because the instructors we had prepared us well,” said Trooper Celeste Sanchez.

Trooper Lynn Lalane says it was seeing her cousin serve as an FHP trooper that inspired her to join.

“Me personally, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, physically, emotionally and I’m just excited. I’m proud,” said Lalane.

FHP says it’s always looking for new recruits.

Starting salaries range from 34 to $39,000 a year, depending on where you’re stationed.

Currently there are 1,700 FHP troopers.

You can apply to FHP by clicking this link.

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New School Safety Law Doesn’t Only Arm Teachers

May 9th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis has followed through with his promise to sign this year’s school safety legislation.It allows for classroom teachers to be armed, and increases funding for mental health and school hardening.

On Tuesday, students and members of Moms Demand Action delivered 13,000 petitions to the Governor, calling for him to veto the school safety bill.

“If my teacher chooses to be armed it’s not a choice for me and I still have to face the consequences of that,” said Tallahassee high schooler and member of Students Demand Action Quinn Holden-Schrock.

But Governor Ron DeSantis put pen to paper the very next day, signing the bill into law as soon as it officially arrived on his desk.

Starting October 1st, districts will have the option to arm teachers who volunteer and have undergone a psychological evaluation, background check and completed 144 hours of training.

“We have some districts that are planning to implement it. We have other districts that have passed resolutions saying they will not implement it,” said Andrea Messina, Executive Director of the Florida School Boards Association.

The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has staunchly opposed the change and says their focus now shifts to the local level.

“We want to put the pressure on our school board members and make sure that our super superintendents understand what the position of our educators is and that position is not to have a gun in school and we don’t want to carry,” said FEA President, Fedrick Ingram.

But the law goes beyond arming teachers.

It also establishes the School Hardening and Harm Mitigation Workgroup, which will review best practices for school hardening to inform how the $50 million allocated for school hardening in the budget can be best spent.

There’s also $17 million for increased mental health services throughout the state.

While appreciative of the extra funds, Messina says part of the challenge now will be finding enough staff for mental health positions.

“And not just people who can provide those services, but we want high quality people. People who are certainly experienced,” said Messina.

Lawmakers like Senator Bill Montford, who doubles as the Executive Director of the Florida Association of District School Super Intendants, say those are issues that will continue to need to be addressed in future years.

“The number of children who come to our schools with significant issues is almost overwhelming and it’s getting worse,” said Montford.

The law also requires schools to establish threat assessment teams made up law enforcement and counselors.

They’ll be tasked with stepping in when a student has been identified as posing a possible threat.

Districts will likely be taking the summer to prepare, so they can roll out some of the changes once the October 1st effective date arrives.

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Federal Suit Filed to End Solitary Confinement in Florida

May 8th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

One out of seven prisoners in solitary confinement throughout the nation are housed in Florida prisons according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The organization has filed a class action lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections, alleging the state’s overuse of solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Laurette Philipsen spent 28 days in solitary confinement in a Florida prison.

She describes the experience as one of the worst in her life.

“You start contemplating… how to end this,” said Philipsen.

She’s been out of the system for a year now, but says she’s still haunted by her days in isolation.

“The maximum amount I sleep at a time is three hours,” said Philipsen.

Philipsen’s experience isn’t unique.

The Southern poverty law Center says 10% of Florida prisoners are housed in solitary confinement at any given time.

That’s about 10,000 inmates.

“There’s a lot of self mutilation that happens. There’s attempts at suicide,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal an Attorney with SPLC. “Even more mildly there’s hallucinations, anxiety, withdrawal, depression.”

The group has filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates currently housed in isolation.

One plaintiff named in the suit, Jac’Quann (Admire) Harvard, has been in solitary for more than 10 years.

Their goal is to end the use of solitary confinement in the state in its entirety.

The Department of Corrections says it has not been served the lawsuit yet.

In a statement the Department said, “The Florida Department of Corrections is committed to providing for the safety and wellbeing of all inmates in our custody. Inmates who cause harm to those around them are placed in restrictive housing settings for the safety of other inmates and our officers.”

But Philipsen says there are more ethical ways of punishing bad behavior.

“It’s the same as raising your child,” said Philipsen. “When you feel that they’ve misbehaved, do you lock them in a box? Do you lock them in a closet? Is that what you do? And then just leave them there?”

Similar lawsuits have been filed in both Virginia and Illinois.

The Department of Corrections also said in its statement, “Protections are in place to ensure all medical and mental health needs of these inmates are being met. Mandatory visits from security officers, chaplaincy and medical are made routinely to inmates in this level of housing. There are processes in place to evaluate these inmates and transition them back into general population.”

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2019: The Best Session or the Worst?

May 7th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

From felons voting rights to restrictions on citizens initiatives, and allowing teachers to carry guns a coalition of progressive groups is calling the 2019 legislative session the worst in state history.

While Republican leaders have touted 2019 as one of the most productive sessions, progressive groups like the League of Women Voters, ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center say it was one of the most destructive.

“The 2019 session was a dark day for Florida’s democracy,” said Scott McCoy with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Police must cooperate with federal authorities under the sanctuary cities legislation and teachers will be allowed to carry guns in some counties under this year’s school safety expansion.

Citizens initiatives will no longer be allowed to pay by the petition under a last minute amendment tagged on to an elections bill and felons will have to pay restitution, fines and court fees before voting if the Governor signs the Legislature’s Amendment 4 implementing bill.

Progressives hope the Governor will break out his veto pen.

“We hope sincerely that he will take a step back, take a deep breath and really understand that he represents the people of Florida and that these things are not good policy,” said McCoy.

Governor Ron DeSantis supports most if not all of the bills in question, and asserts the 2019 session crossed political affiliations.

“The environment stuff that appeals to a lot of Democrats. We did a big increase in affordable housing, which is important to a lot of liberals,” said DeSantis.

While big policy items were heavily Republican leaning, some Democratic lawmakers say on issues like the budget, they were given a seat at the table.

Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat, was most excited about scoring funding for a memorial at the site of the Pulse Night Club Shooting and increased funding for arts and culture.

“That’s only a reflection of the collegiality and the respect we have for one another though we disagree on much policy,” said Eskamani.

However, for many progressives the policy disagreements outweigh bipartisan victories.

McCoy says if the Governor chooses to sign the legislation, the SPLC and ACLU plan on taking the fight to the courts.

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Despite Sweeping Healthcare Legislation, Nurse Practitioner Reform Didn’t Make the Cut

May 7th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

From importing lower cost prescription drugs to allowing more out patient surgeries, and creating telehealth legislation, Florida lawmakers took significant steps to lower the cost of health care ion 2019, but one of the biggest cost savers didn’t make it across the legislative finish line.

Elizabeth Markovich has been working as an Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner for 30 years.

ARNP have either masters or doctors degrees, but are not medical doctors.

Markovich says regulations, which require a doctor to sign on just about everything they do, ends up hurting patients in the end.

“When we want someone to even show up and do physicals at a school for free and volunteer, we need a physician to provide so called supervision, even though they are not there,” said Markovich.

A doctor may supervise ten or more practitioners, charging them each a $1,000 a month, just for his signature.

The Nurse practitioners have been fighting for more than a decade to practice with less supervision.

It was a top priority of House Speaker Jose Oliva.

“I think there a problem with perception on that issue,” said Oliva. “People believe that we want Nurse Practitioners to be doctors, and we don’t. We want them to be able to practice to the full extent of their training.”

The Florida Medial Association fought back, and their opposition swayed both the Senate President and Governor.

“You go through all that training to become a doctor,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

In the Hurricane ravaged panhandle, Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner Stan Whittaker believes having the authority to practice within their training would have meant quicker care for injured residents.

“This protocol is antiquated and outdated,” said Whittaker.

22 other states offer ARNP’s full practice authority.

Florida remains one of the most restrictive states for Advanced Registered Nurse Practioners.

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13,000 Petitions Delivered to Governor, Calling for Arming Teachers Veto

May 7th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Members of Moms Demand Action delivered more than 13,000 signed petitions calling for Governor Ron DeSantis to veto this year’s schools safety expansion to his office Tuesday afternoon.

The legislation would allow school districts who opt in to the guardian program the option of also arming teachers who volunteer.

Tallahassee high school student and member of Students Demand Action Quinn Holden-Schrock was among the group delivering the petitions.

She says while the program might be optional for districts, students would have no say.

“They say that it’s like an option for students. They say it’s an option for teachers, for districts, but it’s really not an option. If my teacher chooses to be armed it’s not a choice for me and I still have to face the consequences of that no matter what,” said Holden-Schrock.

Governor Ron DeSantis has said he plans to sign the legislation.

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Florida Officials Hope Presidential Visit Comes With Hurricane Relief

May 6th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

President Donald Trump will be in the Florida Panhandle for a political rally on Wednesday.

It comes as residents of the hurricane ravaged area are still waiting for federal relief dollars, but Florida leaders hope the President will come bearing good news.

Florida legislators included nearly $2 billion in their 2019 budget towards helping the panhandle recover from Hurricane Michael, but Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley say it’s not nearly enough.

“The panhandle was devastated and the federal government has not done its job, D.C. needs to step up,” said Bradley. “So we stepped up because D.C. was not stepping up.”

President Trump visited the Panhandle just five days after Hurricane Michael made landfall.

Trump’s latest trip to Panama City will be for a political rally.

Bay County voted overwhelming for Trump in 2016, with 71 percent support.

Governor Ron DeSantis says he intends to be at the rally in Panama City with the President on Wednesday.

DeSantis says he’s hoping the President wont be arriving empty handed.

“Why would you want to come unless you’re going to announce more good news,” said DeSantis.

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis feels the same way, and points out securing relief dollars is in the national interest.

“The visit to Northwest Florida would really be extra special if it came with a relief package from Congress,” said Patronis. “Most importantly is Tyndall Air Force Base and the whole roll that it plays in the national security of of our nation. So it’s critical that Congress address it.”

In April, the President announced the federal government would be picking up the full tab for the first 45 days of Hurricane recovery.

Even if Congress isn’t able to come to an agreement on a relief package, Governor DeSantis says there are things the President can do on his own to help.

“I had two asks. One was 45 days of 100 percent reimbursement. He gave us that,” said DeSantis. “The other was up the cost share for all reimbursement from 75 percent to 90 percent. So we’re asking him to do that.”

Arriving with no news might impact President Trump’s bid for reelection in 2020.

The conservative leaning panhandle is crucial to a Republican victory in the country’s largest swing state.

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Lawmakers Close Out the 2019 Session, Governor Promises Vetos

May 4th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The Florida Legislature adjourned Saturday, 14 hours into over time.

The $91.1 billion dollar budget is the largest in the state’s history, but the Governor says it will likely be lower after he signs it.

After passing the Senate unanimously the nearly 18 inch thick budget was shuttled over to the House where it was approved minutes later.

The traditional hanky drop officially closed the 2019 session.

“From hurricane relief, to the environment, to education, to healthcare, to infrastructure; I can’t remember in my time in the Legislature where we’ve had a more productive and bold, bold session,” said Senate President Bill Galvano.

But the excitement over the largest budget in state history was cut short with a promise from Governor Ron DeSantis.

“It’s going to be under 91 when I get through with the budget don’t worry about that,” said DeSantis.

In the end, 192 bills passed this year, but DeSantis mentioned they won’t all make the cut.

“There’s certain things the government just shouldn’t be doing in any level. If that’s in there it’s going to be a candidate. There’s somethings that maybe government should do, but should be local and not state government,” said DeSantis. “Then there’s other things that you know what may have some merit, but I have to weigh would it be better to put that money into reserves?”

And that’s welcome news to some lawmakers.

“The veto pen has always been like kryptonite to the legislature and so we react pretty viscerally to it, but the truth is we put a lot of pork in this budget,” said Senator Tom Lee.

Lawmakers will find out some of what the Governor plans to veto as early as next week.

But some of the most controversial legislation this year like arming teachers, banning sanctuary cities and the implementation of Amendment 4 will become law with the governor promising his signature.

192 bills passing in a session is the fewest in modern memory, and possibly the fewest in the state’s history.

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Hemp Legalization Clears Florida Legislature

May 3rd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

If the Governor agrees with lawmakers, hemp will soon be legal in Florida.

It has been in a gray area of the law since hemp was legalized at the Federal level, and the legalization could bring billions to the state economy.

So strong is hemp’s promise, it passed both the House and Senate unanimously.

“This is a lifeline. This an emerging agricultural product that can make all the difference,” said Senate Sponsor Rob Bradley.

Hemp is a cousin to marijuana and was banned 70 years ago, despite having no psychoactive effect.

House Sponsor Dr. Ralph Massullo calls legislation legalizing hemp, ‘A game changer’.

“For CBD and the industrial applications for our state. It will help our farmers, our children get more jobs,” said Massullo.

“I believe CBD alone is a $22 billion industry and the hemp plant is probably a $100 to $200 billion industry,” said Jeff Greene with the Florida Hemp and Retail Trade Association.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried calls hemp’s potential nearly limitless.

“I think this is historic for the state of Florida. And I absolutely believe is is something that will revolutionize agriculture,” said Fried. “We’ve never seen an excitement for a new kind of profit commodity that we have for hemp.”

Without this legislation, products using hemp or CBD likely would have been pulled from the market.

The legislation removes hemp from what has been a legally grey area, and opens the door for standardized inspection of products on the shelf.

“My biggest priority is making sure the consumer is protected, and a lot of the products on the shelf, I mean, none of them are regulated,” said Fried. “And a lot of them have other things in there that are harmful to consumers. One, there is no CBD in it, two, some have TCH.”

Now, hemp’s future is in the Governor’s hands.

Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the legislation.

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Amendment 4 Implementation Passes: Fines, Fees and Restitution Included

May 3rd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Felons will have to pay fines, fees and restitution ordered by a judge before they can have their voting rights restored under legislation now headed to the Governor’s desk.

The bill is less restrictive than originally proposed, but Amendment 4 supporters say it still has too many pitfalls for failure.

The bill provides that felons can petition a court to waive fines and fees, or convert them to community service hours.

“We do believe in restoration, we do believe in second chances. We also believe in debts being paid,” said House Sponsor Rep. James Grant. “I think the product that you’re seeing has been an effort to reconcile those two things and make sure that when somebody has paid their debt to society they are able to return to vote.”

But democrats like Senator Oscar Braynon say putting a financial obligation on voting rights restoration wasn’t the intent of voters and creates an unequal system.

“People who have money will get the right to vote and people who don’t will not get the right to vote,” said Braynon. “You end up getting I’m going to say unintended consequences. “

Under a criminal justice reform bill also sent to the Governor’s desk Friday, all those released from prison going forward will be given a checklist outlining everything they need to do in order to fully complete their sentence.

Sponsor Rep. Paul Renner says it will help felons understand where they stand with regard to Amendment 4.

“Someone that finishes a 20-year sentence literally does not have anything on their iPhone or on a piece of paper that says my debt is paid to society. We want to get to that point,” said Renner.

As part of the Amendment 4 bill, any felon who improperly registered to vote between January 8th and the effective date of the bill on July 1st would be immune from prosecution.

Even with attempts to find middle ground, lawsuits are almost guaranteed.

Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody is playing it safe, choosing not to answer any questions regarding Amendment 4.

“Our office will likely be involved in spearheading defense of whatever litigation ends up coming out,” said Moody.

Lawmakers say they don’t anticipate this legislation will be the end of the Amendment 4 debate.

They say streamlining the registration and notification process are issues likely to be revisited next year.

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Human Trafficking Bill Bouncing Back and Fourth Between Chambers

May 3rd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Legislation designed to crack down on massage parlors offering sex bounced back and forth between the House and Senate Friday.

Both chambers agree on measures revoking a massage parlors license if they are caught engaging in prostitution.

It requires posters urging people to call if they suspect human trafficking.

The Senate version also includes a public prostitution database, which sponsor Lauren Book calls important.

“It is the fastest growing crime in the world, and it will outpace drug trafficking soon. Its reported to be a 32 billion dollar industry. And I just want to cover one other point. A 2011 study that interviewed hundreds of sex buyers,” said Book. “I was asked, what would deter you from buying sex, and the highest deterrent, an 89 percent was a public database.”

The House removed the database early on in the committee process, citing privacy concerns.

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Legislation to Aid Opioid Lawsuit Heads to Governor

May 3rd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody scored a major victory Friday in the state’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.

The Legislature has sent a bill to the Governor that would allow her office access to information in the prescription drug monitoring data base as tool to show that the drugs have been overprescribed in the state.

Privacy concerns threatened the legislation early on, but Moody says the proper safeguards are in place.

“I believe one of the experts said we have a greater likelihood of being struck by a meteor than we did being able to identify a patient,” said Moody. “We’ve also build in safeguards in terms of seeking protective orders and orders by the court and then destroying the information after we’ve used it.”

Under the bill the Attorney General will be able to access the age and zip code of patients along with the amount of medication the were prescribed.

The authority to access the database will also sunset after two years.

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